Thursday, October 17, 2013

Lexicon - Max Barry

Title: Lexicon
Author: Max Barry
Publisher: The Penguin Press, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 388 pages
Genre: Adult; Thriller
Started: October 8, 2013
Finished: October 17, 2013


From the inside cover:

At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren't taught history, geography, or mathematics-at least not in the usual sense. They are taught to persuade, to use language to manipulate minds, to wield words as weapons. The very best graduate as "poets"and enter a nameless organization of unknown purpose. 

Whip-smart runaway Emily Ruff is making a living from three-card monte on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organizer's recruiters. Drawn into their strange world, which is populated by people with names like Bronte and Eliot, she learns their key rule: that every person can be classified by an extremely specific personality type , his mind segmented and ultimately controlled by the skillful application of words. For this reason she must never allow another person to truly know her, lest she herself be coerced. Adapting quickly, Emily becomes the school's most talented prodigy, until she makes a catastrophic mistake: she falls in love. 

Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Parke is brutally ambushed by two men in an airport bathroom. They claim he is the key to a secret war he knows nothing about, that he is an "outlier," immune to segmentation. Attempting to stay one step ahead of the organizationand its mind-bending poets, Wil and his captors seek salvation in the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, which, if stories are true, sits above an ancient glyph of frightening power. 

A brilliant thriller that connects very modern questions of privacy, identity, and the rising obsession of data collection to centuries-old ideas about the power of language and coercion, Lexicon is Max Barry's most ambitious and spellbinding novel yet. 


I saw this in a book newsletter and the plot sounded amazing, so I decided to give it a shot. I loved the premise in the novel that persuasion is akin to a type of magic, but not in the Harry Potter wand waving kind of way, more of the "gaze upon the amazing prowess of my mind" kind of way. 

Students are recruited to this special school based upon their ability to persuade others, but they also need to be able to hold their own against persuasion itself. They aren't told anything about what the point behind them learning Latin and studying dictionaries is, but as the students advance they start to piece things together as they are exposed to certain combinations of words that will render people associated with that personality type helpless and under the chanter's control. 

The story is told in two different times (Wil's story in present day and Emily's in the past) that eventually converge, and they way they do is a nice little twist. I loved how all the graduates got names of famous writers/poets/playwrights; especially when those names reflected different cultures (eg. a German poet goes by Goethe). I also loved how the author put in little snippets from articles in between chapters that make the reader think of the implications of this type of scenario on privacy laws. When a survey of seemingly innocuous questions can determine anyone's personality type and uncover the string of words to make them open to coercion, the ramifications are endless, not just for advertisers but for politics and law as well. 

The book is well written, starts off a little slow with Wil's part (at least in my opinion) but then picks up with Emily's story. 


An excellent fast-paced novel with a wonderful mind-boggling premise. 

Thoughts on the cover:

Eh, kind of junky, but I do like how they included one of the open-ended questions from the novel's surveys, "Why did you do it?' in the background. 

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